Living Life Off the Leash
Twelve years ago, I said I would retire from my tenure track job at 67--I am beating that goal by two years, and thrilled about it
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In 2010, the New York Times asked me to write a short squib about retirement. Only two years after a financial meltdown that caused nearly all history departments to cancel their tenure stream searches that year, the academic job market seemed to be permanently anemic. Higher-ed pundits were shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Many, including some far too inexperienced to understand the dimensions of the job market collapse, proposed that the problem was not the failure to create jobs but the failure of aging faculty to retire.
That turned out to be a fantasy for many reasons. Mind you, no one in government or higher ed was saying (amid a presidency that was supposed to be the most progressive in decades): “Gee! If we only invested in full-time faculty jobs, there could be more of them!” The bottom line, for about 40 years, has been this: taxes are not popular, spending money on education is not popular, high tuition is not popular, but making excellent, affordable education appear as if by magic is extremely popular.
In any case, I picked up the challenge I was offered and announced in a national newspaper, at the ripe old age of 52, that I would retire in 15 years when I was 67. Why 67? I picked the date at random, in part. After all, it was the age at which I could get a reasonable Social Security payment, and it was younger than 70, which struck me then as quite old. I wrote:
Why go at 67? I believe that if senior scholars offer experience, young Ph.D.’s challenge us with new knowledge. Furthermore, while a classroom presence does not necessarily deteriorate with age, we don’t always notice, or want to admit it, when we become diminished. Setting a voluntary retirement date, well in advance of any decline, respects this reality.
Everybody at the university where I was employed at the time was shocked, but they were shocked by lots of things I did: blogging, speaking in faculty meetings, being too gay, and trying to come up for full professor without being a man.
But here’s something even more shocking. I am retiring at 65 when I am eligible for Medicare. That’s right—as of July 1, I go on a one-year step-down: 60% of my salary for 50% of the labor, which becomes full retirement on July 1, 2023. And it appears that I am not the only one: a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Fidelity Investments found that 55% of us are currently pondering retirement or changing careers.
Potential mass retirement in academia is very new. Even newer is that many of us have not reached the zone, which starts at around 70 and extends, in some cases, to almost 90. Back in 2010, I pointed out that the concept of academic retirement has all kinds of peculiarities that lead to this outcome. Primary among them is that—unlike other professions—in universities, no one talks about retirement as a desirable thing, either for the institution or the individual.
Faculty talk about retirement as if they are being buried alive. Administrators have no power to make anyone retire, and are weirdly afraid of age discrimination lawsuits (which rarely occur), so they act like conversations about retirement are Kryptonite. At my institution, when I wanted to pursue a conversation, it was hard even to figure out who to talk to. There was no information on the Human Resources website that tells a faculty member how to initiate retirement, much less offer incentives to make it attractive.
“Administrators want to retire our salaries but do little to help us overcome our fears,” I wrote in 2010. That was the understatement of the year. And people’s fears are real: what will they do with their time? Who will be their friends? How will they feel important? Does their family want to spend time with them? But the most ubiquitous fear is not having enough money, a worry that has probably become more salient since 2010. Academic salaries have flattened since 2000, and the stock market supporting our retirement accounts has become more volatile in the last 30 years.
But there are other financial worries too, one being that our salaries don’t support us as consumers in our own industry, and children are expensive little beasts. For decades, Americans have been delaying parenthood, and academics defer it even more because we don’t start making money, or saving for anything, until our late 20s or early 30s.
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